Southwest Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Conference
10-13 February 2010
Joseph Smith and the Presidency: Delusions of Grandeur or Genuine Ambitions?
Joseph Smith started more than a religion; he led a political cultural movement that is still a force in contemporary American politics. One need look no further than the 2008 Republican Presidential nominate Mitt Romney or the Senate Majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid.a1a Until recently, serious scholarship on the impact of Joseph Smith’s political aspirations has been lacking. Former studies of the life of Joseph Smith often contain half-truths and attempts to desecrate his character while giving little credit to the larger role he plays in the history of American politics and religion. A closer look inside his candidacy rejects personal power claims. It instead points to sincere motives to provide protection and religious freedom for all oppressed Untied States citizens by increasing the power of the federal government, and installing righteous leaders to assure that protection is realized. While this does not prove him to be a prophet, it nonetheless solidifies his places in American political history.
Joseph Smith functioned as both prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.a2a After the establishment of the Church in 1830, persecution continuously plagued the Saints. This was no more evident than when Missouri Governor Liburn Boggs issued his infamous “Mormon Extermination order” on 27 October 1838. Here, Governor Boggs attempted a sort of “ethnic cleansing” to expel the Mormons from his state. Mormon leadership exercised futile attempts to rescind the order, but with fatal results (Hartley 10-11). However, during this time it was not uncommon for the United States government to dismiss cultures they did not agree with or understand. An example of this can be seen in President Andrew Jackson’s deplorable treatment of the Native Americans in 1830 (Hartley 5-7). This was a hard time to be an ethnic or religious minority in the United States.
Missourians disagreed with Mormon theology, but they feared Mormon politics. The Mormons quickly became a majority in counties they settled in bypurchasing previously unoccupied land. Inevitably political disagreements turned to violence. This was the case at one polling station during August 1838 when the Mormonmajority wasrefused the right to vote in Davies County, Missouri (Abanes 156-57, 188-89).Mobs, fearful of the Mormon political influence, often tortured both Joseph Smith and his followers by the means of tar and feathering (Bushman 225-27). These violent mobs formed to intimidate the Saints,prevent them from voting, and ultimately from living in their own homes.
Feeling the civil rights of his followers was infringed upon, Joseph Smith traveled to Washington to appeal to President Martin Van Buren. Although leery of politicians, Joseph Smith had faith that the power contained in the United States Constitution would save his people. However, he found the exact opposite to be true upon his arrival. While pleading his case before the president he was told, “your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you,” because if he acted he would“lose the vote of Missouri” (Roberts 4:80). Such a blatant political power play disgusted Joseph Smith. As he left Washington he stated, “May he [Van Buren] never be elected again to any office of trust or power” (Roberts 4:89). Whatever faith Joseph Smith carried into the meeting regarding the United States governing powers to address the needs of his people had vanished. After this encounter, one might conclude that in the mind of Joseph Smith, the secular government of the United States was now not only his enemy, but God’s enemy.
With few friends and few places to turn, the Saints went north to Illinois where they found refuge in a town named Commerce, in Hancock County. After settling here, the Mormons renamed the town Nauvoo. Joseph Smith said the name Nauvoo was “of Hebrew origin, and signifies a beautiful situation, or place, carrying with it, also, the idea of rest; and is truly descriptive of the most delightful location” (Roberts 4: 268; Smith 182).However,Joseph Smith and his people found only brief solace in Nauvoo before the Missouri mobs again tried to take his life and imprison him. The reason most often cited for his arrest was on the basis of treason, although scholars debate the legitimacy of these claims.a3a He faced extradition not only from a state government, but even from within his own inner circle of believers as he was “technically a fugitive from justice” (Bushman 426).
During this period in Nauvoo, apostasy became common place among church members, many of whom were converts from Protestant Christianity. Joseph Smith claimed many new revelations that these former Protestants saw as a great departure from their own personal religious views, and felt they could no longer support the prophet in his efforts. Historian Timothy Wood observed, ‘the new body of doctrine alienated many Mormons . . . the new revelations concerning multiple marriage . . . plurality of god, and eternal human progression, precipitated a large departure from the church during the last year of Smith’s life” (188).Of the issues listed by Wood, Protestant converts might have had the hardest time dealing with the doctrine of polygamy.